Stunning architecture, rivers and canals to rival Venice, a plethora of bridges–from the elegant to the quirky, an abundance of the best art in the world, opulent churches replete with gold-covered onion domes, huge palaces, a proud and torrid political history…an embarrassment of riches. St. Petersburg is all of this, and more.
I can’t speak knowledgably about any of these features of St. Petersburg– my view is merely that of a brief observer of all of them. How much can one absorb in three short days? Or long days, as it happens; my visit was near the end of the period known as ‘White Night‘–that part of summer when it never quite gets dark. It also coincided with Naval Day, which I wrote about previously. It has taken me weeks to get to a point where I can return to writing about the city. So much to sort out in my head… as you’ll soon see.
Some superficial first impressions
On first seeing St. Petersburg, the city seems to be spliced by water everywhere. One of the striking visual features of the city is it’s array of bridges, canals and embankments, not to mention an assortment of warships. And, of course, there are the onion domes sprouting everywhere. The buildings are nicely lined up, very little variance in height–most are three stories, and painted in pastel shades. As of now, Saint Petersburg has no skyscrapers, hence a relatively low skyline. Current regulations forbid construction of high buildings in the city centre, however the city authorities have endorsed a controversial project to build a 396 m (1,299.21 ft) supertall skyscraper. I hope they change their mind about that–a skyscraper would not enhance the city’s image.
The historic architecture of the city center mostly consists of 18th and 19th century Baroque and neoclassical buildings, most of which have been preserved. The ornamentation varies from modest to excessive, but virtually all of the buildings are decorated in some way. The following picture represents neither extreme.
The interiors of many of these buildings are an entirely different matter. Of course, the ones I saw were show pieces, historically preserved, so they probably don’t reflect the interiors of most of the buildings today. But what I saw does reflect the lifestyle of the royalty and aristocracy prior to 1917. It isn’t difficult to understand why the revolution occurred. I visited two palaces owned by members of the aristocracy. We weren’t allowed to take photos, so I only have tales to share about those. But that will be in another post.
Some Basic Details:
In addition to being located on the Neva River, sitting at the head of the Gulf of Finland, the city currently stands on more than 4o islands, and there are 90 more rivers and canals. These waterways, and the numerous islands, require a multitude of bridges. Nowadays there are said to be 308 bridges within the city proper – 534 if you include suburbs. It’s hardly surprising that its nickname is “Venice of the North.” Twenty-two of the bridges are drawbridges, which are open nightly for several hours. Residents who want to use any of those bridges must be aware of the time when a particular bridge is open. Generally, most are drawn somewhere between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
In addition to being Russia’s largest seaport, St. Petersburg is also an industrial centre. Industries include engineering, printing, manufacturing, and shipbuilding. However I think St. Petersburg is best known for its role in the political history of Russia, and for its cultural heritage. Indeed, St.Petersburg has been recognized by UNESCO as a Monument of the World’s Culture. I wrote briefly in a previous post of some of its political history (Fodder: Cannon and Otherwise)–describing The Seige of Leningrad, AKA the 900 Day Seige, which occurred during WWII. And it was, of course, where the 1917 Revolution began. But this is not a history lesson, so I don’t intend to dwell further on the “torrid history” part. Suffice to say, when you are there, you can’t really ignore it, as I am going to do here.
The Winter Palace, which was home of the Russian Emperors from 1763 to 1917, is one of five buildings that make up the architectural ensemble of the State Hermitage Museum. The Small Hermitage (1764-1775) was added onto the Winter Palace to accommodate Catherine II’s rapidly expanding collection of artworks. Today the Hermitage collection numbers about three million exhibits. (No, I don’t have photos of all of them…)
In this post I’ll try to deal with the Hermitage (pronounced her mi tahzge). I won’t even try to describe it; there aren’t that many superlatives in my paltry vocabulary. I’ll have to just hint at it with a few photos. Unfortunately, my own photographs aren’t all that great. Mainly because I become a bit wobbly when leaning over backwards to shoot ceilings, which is what I mostly tried to shoot. Nevertheless, I’ll show you a few, then send you off to a site where you can take a virtual tour. AND you can take it in the comfort–if not quite the splendour–of your own home, which I’m guessing is neither as crowded nor as hot and humid as the Hermitage was on the day I was there. And you won’t have as far to walk. I won’t be giving you a guided tour through my photos–you see what you see; there’s no chance I (or you) could remember the details of all of it.
The throne is the small-looking chair near the bottom of the picture, below the large painting of Peter I with the goddess Minerva. And, no, it wasn’t a small throne! The photo shows only the far end of a long and gorgeous ‘hall.’ The walls are covered with velvet, embroidered with silver.
I reckon by now you get the picture (so to speak). It was awesome. And very crowded. And did I mention it was hot and humid? The tour I was on was fortunate enough to be allowed in half an hour before opening, which gave us a wee head start before the crowds invaded. Once they caught up, it became very difficult to take photographs. And, if that wasn’t discouragement enough, there were Room Monitors. I don’t mean electronic devices. I mean Room Monitors, like the kind we had in primary school. Only in this case, they all were little old ladies sitting on chairs, watching. They didn’t miss anything, either. Just try sneaking out a camera in a room where photos weren’t allowed. Or crossing a barricade, or touching anything at all. These women knew it immediately, and had ways of humiliating–and scaring the bejeezus out of an offender. None of them were actually wearing a babushka–it was probably too damned hot–but they all looked as if they should be. The archetypal Russian grandmother. I personally didn’t get into any trouble, but I watched some who did. My strategy was to smile widely at each one, much as one holds out a hand for a strange dog to sniff. I don’t know if it helped, but just to be safe, I made sure I didn’t break any rules. I still wonder just how one becomes one of these Omnipotent Room Monitors.
I’m not finished with St. Petersburg, but I’m finished for today. If you are interested in a closer look at the Hermitage itself, and some of the many treasures it houses, you can take a virtual tour by clicking the following link: virtual viewing (then click on virtual visit)
I particularly call your attention to the rooms themselves. The ceilings, the wood inlay on the floors, and in some rooms the mosaics on the floor. For me, the most spectacular thing about the Hermitage was the decor of the building itself. Many of the most stunning rooms are located on the first floor, while many of the art collections (Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, etc.) and other treasures are displayed on the second floor. If you browse through the lists on the above link, you’ll see that there are 132 rooms, many of which are quite large, so you can see that a lot of walking is involved…)
If the virtual picture seems to be spinning too rapidly, you can slow it down, and control it, by clicking on your mouse and holding it down as you move it. Also, you can zoom in by using your right click. Or just use the help that is offered. It’s worth your time, but will take a while. There’s just so much to see, even if you just sample it. Be patient; it takes a few seconds for the virtual picture to load in each case.
Okay, I’m outa here. You can keep going if you want, but I’m knackered just from remembering it all. You really should do at least a bit of the virtual tour, and while you’re at it, think of me doing it on foot… MM